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Archaeologists believe they've found artifacts from Alaska's 'cursed' warship, the Neva

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 14, 2016

In January 1813, 26 men shivered on a cold beach in Southeast Alaska. They had scrambled from a wreck that claimed the lives of most of their shipmates, fighting waves and rocks that in some cases literally tore the shirts from their backs. The freezing rain mixed with snow. A constant wind blew off the North Pacific. They had no shelter, supplies or any hope of rescue. No one knew where they were.

Thus fate dealt with the survivors of the Neva, the famous and infamous Russian frigate that may be called the most important vessel in Alaska history.

Last summer another group, scientists this time, spent most of a month near the spot where they think the Neva went down, looking for traces of the wreck and the makeshift camp of the survivors.

"The Neva is almost legendary," said David McMahan, chief investigator on the expedition and former Alaska state archaeologist. "Folks have been looking for it for 200 years."

No official documentation from the time of the disaster is known to exist, just stories dimly remembered as they passed from one person to another. McMahan said he wants to confirm or dismiss "the myths and 'lore of the sea' with scientific findings."

He has led two trips to the area where he thinks the survivors camped. The investigations have uncovered items that may tell archaeologists how the men managed to endure the cold and storms of January in Southeast Alaska with only scavenged remnants of the wreck and whatever they could forage from the immediate vicinity. The artifacts paint a picture of desperation, ingenuity and grit that modern adventurers will find gripping and even surprising.

But no one should be surprised that the great ship sank.

According to the late Tlingit historian Herbert Hope, after the second battle of Sitka, a shaman predicted the ship that had shelled the village would go under the water.

"It went down right where he said it would," Hope said. "That ship was cursed."

Showing the flag

The cursed ship began life as the Thames. It was constructed near London and sold to Russia along with a second ship, Leander. The two ships were sent to St. Petersburg and renamed Neva (pronounced nay-VAH) for the principal river leading to that city, and Nedezhda, "Hope."

The Russian-American Company, attempting to build industry in the territory now known as Alaska, had prevailed upon the czar to acquire the ships. It was thought that even a long all-ocean route would be a more practical and cost-effective way to supply the colony than transporting goods thousands of miles overland and then shipping them along the Aleutians and across the Gulf of Alaska.

Czar Alexander I had his own agenda for the ships. He wanted to signal the rest of Europe that Russia could be as great a power at sea as it was on land. The two ships were charged with making the first circumnavigation of the globe by Russian vessels.

"For Russia it was a rite of passage on some level, showing the flag," said Jenya Anichenko, the archival coordinator for the project and an Anchorage-based specialist in maritime archaeology. "But it also contributed a lot of science, hydrology, chartings. They named a lot of landmarks."

Those landmarks include Lisianki Island, a mile-long sandy rookery northwest of Hawaii, named for the Neva's first commander, Yuri Lisyansky. The vast coral forests that surround the island are known as the Neva Shoals.

The ship was later commanded by Ludwig von Hagemeister, who would run the Russian-American Company briefly in 1818. Under Hagemeister, the Neva became the first Russian ship to visit Australia.

Lisyansky collected ethnographic material en masse, including the first items from the colony to go on public display in Europe, an exhibit of Tlingit masks.

"The Neva first brought Alaska to Russia," Anichenko said.

The Neva returned to St. Petersburg in August 1806, two weeks ahead of its sister ship. Historians Elton and Allan Engstrom write that the occasion was "a symbol of national triumph."

The frigate, sometimes described as a sloop, spent most of its career as a transport, taking furs to China, tea to Russia, supplies and settlers to the New World. At 373 tons, it was big enough to handle the rough seas around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, but small enough to pull into smaller ports.

It carried 14 cannons, hardly on the scale of the great men-of-war battleships, which could have 120 guns.

Yet the thing Alaskans know about the ship, if they know anything at all, doesn't involve science or exploration or art. What Alaskans remember is the one time those 14 guns roared in combat.

Changing the course of history

In 1802, Tlingit warriors overwhelmed the Russian garrison at New Archangel, now Sitka. Two years later Alexander Baranov, the chief manager of the Russian-American Company, planned to counterattack with an army of Russian fur hunters and Aleuts in skin baidarkas. Supplied with guns by the Hudson Bay Company and protected by a staunch long fort with cannons of their own, the Tlingits handily repelled Baranov's first attempt.

As he regrouped, the Neva arrived in Kodiak as part of its round-the-world trip. Lisyansky was told of the fighting to the east and sailed for Sitka "to the undoubted astonishment of every Russian and Native on that entire coast," writes historian Jeremy Atiyah. "Baranov's eyes must have boggled."

The Neva's cannons took a toll on the fort and thwarted attempts to resupply the defenders. Deserted by their British allies and short on gunpowder, the Tlingits evacuated the position and Baranov claimed victory. He would manage the Russian-American Company from Sitka until 1818 and enter into mutually profitable business arrangements with his former enemies.

"It's remembered as a prosperous time," Hope said. "The Tlingits controlled the resources, the Russians handled the export business. There weren't very many of them and they stayed in their forts. They were afraid of Indians with guns."

The battle had pivotal consequences for all of what is now the 49th state of the United States. Had the Neva not shown up, the Tlingit had better than even chances of repulsing the Russians permanently or holding out until the Hudson Bay Company decided to intervene. In that case Russian claims in North America probably would not have extended past Kodiak and Cook Inlet, and the United States, if it wanted all half-a-million square miles of modern Alaska, would have had to fight with the British Empire instead of buying it from cash-strapped Russia for two cents an acre. The Alexander Archipelago and much of Interior Alaska, perhaps all the way to Norton Sound and the Chukchi Sea, would most likely have become part of Canada.

That the modern political map does not look like this is due to the fact that the Neva sailed into the fray at the moment it did. Atiyah writes, "It's hard to imagine how the battle to regain Sitka would have proceeded without it."

The curse strikes

In late August 1812, the Neva left Okhotsk in Siberia bound for Sitka with cargo and passengers. It quickly ran into terrible weather.

"The ship just got pounded," McMahan said. "It was blown all over the Gulf of Alaska." Fifteen died from sickness and lack of fresh water.

In November, after three months at sea, the ship limped into Prince William Sound, where it found temporary shelter. Though the crew was weakened and the rigging damaged, the decision came down to make a dash for Sitka.

"They actually got a break in the weather and pretty much made it to the entrance of Sitka Sound in early January," McMahan said.

The captain was so confident that he ordered the anchor set and went below to get some rest before continuing into the harbor the next morning.

"But the fog moved in," McMahan continued. "Suddenly they found out they were drifting in the wrong direction."

The weather turned foul again. An anchor was lost. Someone spied a rock, but it was too late to avoid it. The rock knocked off the rudder and the helpless hulk ground against the shoals from early morning until evening, by which point it had broken in half.

Passengers included women and children. They transferred to a longboat in an attempt to get to shore. But as soon as the boat cast off it was swamped. All on board died while those still on the ship watched in horror at the loss of life and their only lifeboat.

Someone tried to make a raft from shattered pieces of wood. It fell apart. Ultimately the men had no choice but to die where they were or jump into the water and swim for the shore through waves as high as a building.

All together, 32 people died in the wreck or in the surge; those are in addition to the 15 who had died on board during the crossing. Twenty-eight made it to shore. Two of them died soon after.

Soaking wet, exposed to the elements, the survivors' most urgent priority was to make a fire. That wasn't going to be easy. "They didn't have time to grab anything from the boat," Anichenko said. "They were just fighting for their lives."

One man, however, still had a flintlock pistol with him. More or less dry grass was found under the trees and the flint was used to strike a spark -- more likely several sparks, each accompanied by prayers and swear words until one finally made smoke. The smoke was coaxed into a glow, the glow into a flame. And the flame nursed into a blazing fire.

In the weeks that followed, the survivors recovered such battered debris as washed up from the wreck. They scoured the beach and the woods for food. Dogs appeared, but no people. There were no known villages in the vicinity, McMahan said.

Finally two hunters went out in opposite directions. One came upon a Tlingit boy paddling a canoe, or perhaps a kayak. He offered the boy his shirt if he could deliver word of the survivors to the Russian fort at New Archangel. The boy headed for Sitka and, soon after, a rescue party arrived.

We'll never know if the rescuers saw any sign of the Neva during their mission. "It's somewhat frustrating," Anichenko said. "The best information we have is people who wrote down descriptions they heard from survivors years after it happened."

Evidence uncovered

In 2012, McMahan tried to match up sketchy historical narratives with modern satellite data and anecdotal data. For example, an abalone diver claimed to have seen a cannon underwater at a certain spot during the 1980s. All accounts seemed to converge off Kruzof Island near Sitka,

McMahan got a grant and the search for evidence of the Neva wreck began in earnest in 2013.

"It was a long shot, but I wanted to go out on the lowest tide of the year and walk the beach," McMahan said.

He didn't find much below the waterline. But above the shore the hunt proved more successful. Here had been 12 feet of uplift over the past 200 years. What had been the beach was now a terrace. Under the dirt of a "severely eroding" section, McMahan's party found caches of axes.

The axes were in the Russian style, with a distinctive barb in front of the handle. They were stacked as if they had once been in a crate for shipment. They smelled like salt water.

"We stopped everything, consulted with the local tribe and applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation," McMahan said.

An international crew of Americans, Canadians and Russians returned to the site in July 2015 and quickly got a little taste of the shaman's curse when their support helicopter was delayed, leaving them temporarily stranded.

"We went briefly without a tent or fire," Anichenko said. "Even though it was summer, you could draw a message about how unpredictable the weather can be and what it's like to depend on what you've brought with you. It was easy to imagine how miserable it could be there in January."

It rained for 19 days of the 24 that the archaeologists worked at the site.

"We were not alone," Anichenko said. "There were five to seven brown bears cruising around, attracted by a whale carcass on the beach. They changed their schedule after we arrived, but they really didn't go away."

The team investigated a small area of about 12 square meters. Excavations uncovered "a series of hearths with early 19th century artifacts."

There were gun flints that showed signs of having been struck against steel. Musket balls that someone had tried to whittle down to fit a smaller caliber -- say the size of a pistol. A bundle of charred grass with tiny flakes of flint in it. Another ax. Copper nails, some broken as might happen in a wreck, one turned into a fishing hook. Pieces of copper sheeting that had been modified for some purpose. One leg of a navigator's compass.

They did not find ceramics, glass or things one would expect in a planned settlement or habitation.

"It all suggests improvisation," McMahan said. "We're fairly confident we've found the site. But it's not as straightforward as we hoped."

That's because the site has been used several times over the past 200 years and those people also left stuff behind. McMahan suspects a clay pipe stem, for instance, may have been dropped by someone who happened to use the site much later.

Some of the material has been sent to experts in London and Purdue University in Indiana. They will be examined for chemical and metal data that may indicate when and where the relics originated. Rings from nearby trees will be counted to determine how long the site has been above the tide. Underwater work will be pursued in hopes of penetrating the thick kelp that thwarted a sonar survey last summer.

McMahan asked that anyone who has received anecdotal or oral histories, perhaps from older family members -- as was the case with Hope's recollections -- to contact him through the Sitka Historical Society.

Sensitive site

The archaeologists are proceeding with caution, McMahan said. They are not disclosing the location of the site. The area has "profound cultural significance" to the local tribe, he said.

It also has bitter associations. According to one Russian source, when the survivors were rescued, local Natives "tore their hair in frustration" saying that, had they know where the Neva castaways were, "they would have killed all the people." Washing up in a spot where no one thought to look for them may actually have been a lucky break for the survivors.

Among the Tlingit, "There's still no love for the Neva," McMahan said.

Anichenko said the presumed survivors' camp seems to have a special ambience. "It's a beautiful place," she said. "And even though I'm a scientist, there's something about being in a location where so many people came to their deaths. The shipwrecks I've worked on before were all so-called 'happy shipwrecks'; everyone on board survived.

"But here, 30 people died. All the women and children died in the first 30 minutes."

The casualties included T.S. Bornovolokov, the man assigned to replace Baranov, whose arrival would have let Baranov visit his friend King Kamehameha in Hawaii and Yankee traders on the East Coast of America, making connections that could have changed history in yet a different way. Another victim was Prokopii Mal'tsov, the first Tlingit sent to Russia to receive the equivalent of a university education. He was returning home after having studied marine architecture in St. Petersburg.

At least some of the bodies of the dead must have washed ashore. It would have fallen on the survivors to bury them. Although it is easy for an expert to tell a Russian grave from a Tlingit grave, the investigators avoided searching for burial places in deference to tribal concerns and laws protecting Native American remains.

"We didn't find any graves," McMahan said. "Nor did we look for them."

"Had we found graves, we would have had to close the expedition," Anichenko said. "We didn't have permission to do that."

Nonetheless, she was compelled to acknowledge those who perished with the Neva. She and her fellow scientists held a brief religious service. They set up an icon, fashioned a makeshift cross out of cast-off sticks of wood and lit a candle.

"We gathered around and I read a little prayer," Anichenko said. "Somehow it felt important to do that."

FURTHER READING: In "Russians in Tlingit America," Alaska State Writers Laureate Nora and Richard Dauenhauer have collected a number of oral and written histories describing the battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804 and surrounding events as recalled by both Tlingit and Russian sources.

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